As the recession continues across the country, an increasing number of court officials are hearing people say financial hardship will not allow them to take a seat in the jury box.
No one is keeping national statistics on how hardship excuses are affecting courts. But to get a sense of the problem, the Center for Jury Studies — which provides assistance to state courts on jury trial management — conducted an informal poll of jury administrators earlier this year.
Responses varied — some locales said it wasn't a problem, others, like one county in Nevada, said they were hearing more desperation in the voices and letters of potential jurors. Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies, says the impact on juries depends on how hard the recession has hit a given community, how long courts require citizens to serve, and the actual jury fee.
"The national average, I think, is $22 a day, and there are still a number of states where the payment is $10 a day," Hannaford-Agor says. "It's certainly adding insult to injury with people who are feeling emotionally frazzled by the economic situation now."
A Day In Court
At King County Superior Court in Seattle, jurors get paid $10 a day.
"More and more now, we're hearing from individuals [that] two days, even one day is going to be a hardship for them, that they're not going to be able to handle that financially in any way," says Greg Wheeler, the court's jury manager.
The Los Angeles County judicial system is the largest judicial system in the country. On a recent morning at the Los Angeles Superior Court Criminal Justice Center, Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes greeted potential jurors as they filed into the jury assembly room. She reminded them about how important their role is. She then got to the subject that's on the minds of many — the recession.
"I want to tell you that we understand the economy, and we understand what's going on," Haynes said.
Patricia Powell hears firsthand what's going on every day. Powell, a court assistant for L.A. County's jury services, says that people asking to be excused or to postpone their jury service is nothing new, but that these days the stories are more personal.
"They've been unemployed for quite some time, that they're self-employed due to losing a job, they're losing their homes. You've got a lot of jurors who are crying," Powell says.
Doing Your Part
A small crowd of newly impaneled jurors is waiting to be called into the courtroom. Anyone with an extreme financial hardship has the opportunity to address the judge about their situation.
Patricia Schnegg, assistant supervising judge for L.A. County criminal court, says most judges will allow jurors having a tough time to postpone their service.
"The court really strives to make sure that we carefully look at each individual situation, and all the judge's do," Schnegg says. "So we'll excuse them for a year. I'll say, 'See how your financial situation is in a year,' and most of these people really want to do jury duty, and many of them are people who have served in the past but have lost their job, and they just can't cope right now."
Judges and jury administrators aren't the only ones dealing with the issue.
"As a trial attorney, you never want people on your jury that don't want to be there" says David S. Kestenbaum, a criminal defense lawyer.
Kestenbaum says that in recent months, the issue has caused both prosecutors and defense attorneys in L.A. County to stipulate that a juror be removed when a judge has already denied their financial hardship excuse.
"We've had to, because especially in serious long cases, you want people that are paying attention to the testimony and the evidence presented in court — not feeling they really need to provide for their family and would like to be somewhere else," Kestenbaum says.
Those in the court system know these challenges are likely to remain as long as the economy is weak. But with trial-by-jury still the centerpiece of the American justice system, the acknowledgment given to jurors these days has special resonance.